“Weland gave the Sword, The Sword gave the Treasure, and the Treasure gave the Law. It’s as natural as an oak growing.”
Puck of Pook’s Hill, by Rudyard Kipling.
I’m going to try to give some coherence and structure to these posts on my favourite fantasy books, so let’s go back to my childhood to start it all. Here, in Puck of Pook’s Hill, is the very beginnings of my on-going love for fantasy.
For those of you not familiar, Puck of Pook’s Hill is a 1906 children’s book by Rudyard Kipling. Yes, I know Kipling is politically incorrect. I didn’t know that when I was eight, and my memory of a child’s delight with this book remains.
Puck, an elf (perhaps), (the same Puck as in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I’ll also be writing about, at some point) and “the oldest Old thing in England”, appears to two children, Dan and Una, from Midsummer’s Eve to early November. Either he, or characters from history he brings with him, tell the children a series of stories, which illustrate a version of a history of England from before the Conquest to the signing of the Magna Carta.
The stories begin with Puck appearing to the children and explaining who and what he is (which is not a fairy):
‘Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don’t care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors? Butterfly wings, indeed! I’ve seen Sir Huon and a troop of his people setting off from Tintagel Castle for Hy-Brasil in the teeth of a sou’-westerly gale, with the spray flying all over the Castle, and the Horses of the Hills wild with fright. Out they’d go in a lull, screaming like gulls, and back they’d be driven five good miles inland before they could come head to wind again. Butterfly-wings! It was Magic—Magic as black as Merlin could make it, and the whole sea was green fire and white foam with singing mermaids in it. And the Horses of the Hills picked their way from one wave to another by the lightning flashes! That was how it was in the old days!’
So many of the elements of the Eurocentric fantasy I grew up were introduced to me first in this book of interrelated short stories and poems: Weyland Smith, the Wild Hunt, the ‘Little People’, and the mythologized Roman Empire (which became the idea behind my own books.) The power of trees: Oak, Ash, and Thorn; the magic of hollow hills and circles, and, too, the interconnectedness, the interweaving, of magic and history.
Kipling’s stories would influence a generation (or more) of writers; I believe they can be seen strongly in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series (more on those another time), but also on another writer, if only in one small way. Because when Puck is described, one thing that is mentioned – along with his small stature – is his ‘bare, hairy feet.’ Just like Bilbo’s.
Featured Image: H. R. Millar’s 2nd illustration to the original edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, from the chapter Weyland’s Sword, entitled, “Then he made a sword”.